The End (of Adolescence) Is Near in ‘Armageddon Time’

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A Black boy and a white boy run cheerfully through Central Park arch
Jaylin Webb stars as Johnny Crocker and Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff in director James Gray's ‘Armageddon Time.’ (Courtesy of Focus Features)

A small movie with a deceptively explosive title, Armageddon Time (opening Friday, Nov. 4) augurs an apocalypse. Alas, the anticipated earth-shattering arrives with the force of a winter wind rather than a megaton bomb. Do the Right Thing would have been a better moniker, if it wasn’t too much on the nose—not that writer-director James Gray is averse to hammering home the obvious—and already taken.

The end of the world as he knows it is some months away for 11-year-old Paul Graff (a blank-faced Banks Repeta) when the film begins. Life is copacetic for the Jewish sixth-grader as he starts the school year on the eve of the eve of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Yes, there’s tension at home, but there’s always tension in the cramped Queens house, between his older brother (Ryan Sell) picking on him and his plumber father (Jeremy Strong) angsting about everything.

A white woman and a white man sit at dining table with empty plates and pastry
Anne Hathaway stars as Esther Graff and Jeremy Strong stars as Irving Graff in ‘Armageddon Time.’ (Courtesy of Focus Features)

Paul is convinced he’s smarter, wittier and funnier than everyone else, a misplaced confidence acquired through his ability to manipulate his harried mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) and the affirmational ministrations of his doting grandpa Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). Paul isn’t bothered by his family’s expectations, implicit and explicit; he’s sure that great things await him.

Plenty of protagonists of coming-of-age stories are both mildly unlikeable and think they’re special. (Those two characteristics are connected in real life, so why not in fiction?) Paul’s saga is also representative of a sub-genre of the genre — portrait of the artist as a young man — as he doesn’t merely draw good pictures for his age but has decided that he’s going to be an artist.

You can guess how this goes over with his working-class dad and pragmatic mom, although one wonders why they’re so worked up about an 11-year-old’s half-thawed aspirations. Shouldn’t they be more concerned about Paul pilfering cash from mom’s jewelry box?

A red-headed white boy and an older white man hug on a park bench
Michael Banks Repeta as Paul Graff and Anthony Hopkins as Grandpa
Aaron Rabinowitz in ‘Armageddon Time.’ (Courtesy of Focus Features)

Paul expects his talent and savvy to carry the day at school as well, but he’s affronted by the blunt instrument that is his teacher. Mr. Turkeltaub’s (Andrew Polk) primary target, though, is a Black student named Johnny (Jaylin Webb) who Turkey (as Johnny calls the teacher) failed the previous year. The friendship that develops between Paul and Johnny becomes the motor of Armageddon Time and ground zero for its social and moral concerns.


We should be happy, I suppose, that a veritable spate of current and upcoming films — Armageddon Time, Causeway, Empire of Light, Devotion and Bones and All — center on interracial relationships of various types. But those first three movies (the only ones I’ve seen) contain exactly one scene apiece in the Black characters’ homes, contributing to the perception that the filmmakers — for all their good intentions — don’t just foreground but identify with the white characters.

Armageddon Time is semi-autobiographical, so it makes sense. To James Gray’s credit, though, he wants audiences not only to see injustice through Paul’s eyes, but to feel it in Johnny’s bones. The filmmaker wants to implicate us, make us complicit, in the racism that drives the story’s outcomes. At the same time, he has knowingly situated us and all of the Graffs on the horns of the universal dilemma that’s smack at the center of the film: Seeking, finagling, grasping, purchasing and protecting any possibility for the success of one’s children.

Red-headed white boy and white woman face each other tensely in kitchen
Michael Banks Repeta and Anne Hathaway in a scene from ‘Armageddon Time.’ (Courtesy of Focus Features)

When your kid’s future is at stake, everyone and everything else (including principles) is pushed aside. Gray evokes the consequences by cueing the Clash’s piercing cover of “Armagideon Time” (“A lot of people won’t get no supper tonight / A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight”). You might want to play the band’s “Career Opportunities” (“the ones you never got”) before you head out to the theater.

I said that Armageddon Time is a small film, but it’s an ambitious one. Along with the aforementioned themes, Gray references the Holocaust and present-day antisemitism, nuclear tensions with the then-Soviet Union and the imperative of originality in art. He could make his points more subtly, but perhaps he thinks the times call for clarity and directness.

Armageddon Time is, at its most basic level, a chronicle of Paul’s realization that life isn’t fair. (Although anyone with an older sibling would have learned that at a very early age.) Not content to settle for a downbeat, hard-earned life lesson, the movie aspires to inspire us not to settle, either, and to do the right thing, every chance we get.